The Dawn of Library Automation

I started work at a private school at the beginning of an Autumn term. My new position as Girls’ School Librarian was more about keeping an eye on the pupils than developing the collection. The library was located in the girls’ school building, but it served boys and girls in both primary and secondary schools up to Sixth Form. An unsupervised Sixth Form library was located in the boys’ school wing – presumably the remit of the ‘School Librarian’, who was a longstanding senior teacher.

I was proudly introduced to an already ageing BBC B computer, clearly surplus to teaching requirements, on which a member of the computing lab had installed the library catalogue. The system didn’t go as far as issuing books to pupils though. Loans were still recorded by book cards in borrower tickets filed in wooden issue trays.

My predecessor’s retirement had followed the introduction of this computer to the library, so the fact that I’d supervised Granny’s Garden (an early “educational” computer game) on a BBC B as a volunteer at my childrens’ primary school may have been a factor in landing me the post.

I had been a computer enthusiast since my first Sinclair ZX, especially since the Amstrad that replaced it included a word processing program. My handwriting has always been illegible and my typewriting erratic. (I even felt the need to practice handwriting before sitting the exams I’d recently taken for the first half of my degree.)

Amstrad keyboard

Looking back, this was a gentle reintroduction to the world of work. Books approved by the bursar were bought by teachers (who claimed on expenses) and I merely processed them and added them to the catalogue. The School Librarian and the Head seemed unduly impressed by my efforts at tidying and reorganising the library. Teachers praised my unartistic attempts at an autumnal arrangement on a notice board I discovered under a large outdated event poster. They asked if they could display pupils’ work in the library – which seemed to me a much better use for the board – and began bringing pupils in for library sessions during lesson time.

The job was term-time only and part-time during term, but I soon discovered that thirty hours per week didn’t leave much time for shopping. At least I could get the children off to school in the morning an my sister collected the younger ones along with her own. I arrived home soon after them. It also helped that, being a private school, my vacations were longer than my children’s school holidays.

But it is a truism that outgoings expand to consume the income available.

When one is juggling a monthly income of not-very-much (and variable at that) it is easy to believe that a regular salary will fill all the gaps and help reduce that credit card debt that we moved between card issuers whenever the latest “no interest on transfers” period expired. That belief had been over-optimistic.

The library’s resources included several daily broadsheets and a local newspaper as well as the Times Educational Supplement. During the summer term of that year, a local Sixth Form Centre advertised for a librarian and I applied. If nothing else, it would give me more interview experience.

Photo by Lum3n on

Junior schools in the UK rarely had libraries when I was in junior school (practically prehistory).

How was it where you were?

14 thoughts on “The Dawn of Library Automation

  1. When we emigrated to Australia in 1964 Mum and Dad bought a house in a new suburb where there was little else except schools and Tom the Cheap Grocer. Mum was bereft without a public library – luckily I was starting at the high school so I used to bring her books from the school library!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Now in the leafy suburbs of London around that time, we had a public library (if you didn’t mind going all around the houses on a bus) but not in school – until you got to the sixth form, and that wasn’t so much a library as a study room with bookshelves. sixth formers were trusted to sign out books in a ledger. History is silent about how many went missing.

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  2. At our junior school we had a library rack in each classroom, so not many books were available and I mostly referred to our collection of encycopedias at home for information. The nearest Library was a short bus ride away and a weekly journey allowed us to borrow four books but we were discouraged from browsing the shelves out of our age range.
    Imagine my delight when moving to a new council estate when I was 10, included the most modern library which became a home from home for me. I loved to browse the non fiction shelves to find books that supported my current hobby. I enjoyed the classical fiction for children and later used the Library for studying.
    As I went up to Secondary School we had a good library but it did not compare to my preferred neighbourhood one.
    We later changed to a newly built school which had a purpose built library. We were so lucky to have it. I didn’t really use it as much as I could. It was a point of reference for learning only. Not for pleasure. Now having access to the adult section I enjoyed free reign of fictional books and became an avid reader. My parents rarely visited the Library but often sent me to find books for them. My Mother reading penny Romances and my Father enjoying Westerns.
    When I returned to work after having family my first job was as a library assistant for English Nature in a beautiful library.
    The library has played a part throughout my life. When my Granddaughter started nursery I was overjoyed to find an entire room full of books for borrowing for two to five year olds, which we used until she began to go to school. Living in a Coates both my Grandchildren have found the joys of the Library bus, which they call the Library Wagon. It turns up fortnightly on a Thursday afternoon, immediately after school. They are eager to get onboard. My Grandson at first disappointed that they didn’t actually go for a ride whilst choosing his books. Sadly, they are not allowed to choose their own books at present and have to suggest books to the assistant to look for them. This doesn’t work as children initially decide visually which book they would like. Hopefully, things will get better.
    I regularly use the Whittlesey Library which is a wonderful resource and meet there with the U3a group for Family History.

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    1. It isn’t the same, is it, when you have to choose books from a catalogue instead of browsing the shelves?
      When I left the public library I found it hard to select books from the library’s fiction shelves. I was used to sorting through boxes of new books prior to processing (a necessary procedure so we could identify the ones borrowers had requested prior to purchase).
      Prior to lockdown, I had a pile of books waiting to be read, gleaned from charity shops and the U3A book table, but they are gradually going down and I will have a pile to take back when we’re allowed to meet again.


    1. I remember applying for one job in the early days that I thought was probably outside my capabilities, but I was shortlisted! (At the time, the media company my husband worked for was bidding to renew its contract . Competition was strong, so things were uncertain all around.)
      To make matters worse I had developed debilitating pain in my upper back which I subdued with paracetemol for the interview, which went well. I feared I might have got the job.
      I remember later that afternoon lying on a sunbed while my husband tried to massage the pain away, when the phone rang. It was the college that had interviewed me. I was a close runner-up but the successful candidate had more relevant experience.
      I went back out to the garden with a glass of wine and only then realised that the backache had evaporated.
      (Later that week hubby’s company’s contract was renewed, so we were able to buy more wine)

      Liked by 1 person

        1. stress release…
          I just resorted to a G&T. (My husband is changing a tap. He gets dizzy these days lying under the sink looking up. With complications – there are always complications – it’s begining to look like a two-day job.) At least we still have water upstairs – unlike yesterday when the water was off to fit an isolation valve… (I did mention complications…)

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  3. Love this one, too, Cathy. We had a library even in our grade schools, as I remember. I loved reading biographies in third grade. In sixth grade I loved mythology and did my report on Greece. (In those days one report a year and it had to be at least three or four pages.) How did I ever do it? I remember hating my parents because they would purchase World Book Encyclopedias. Everyone had World Book. We had Golden Press Children’s Encyclopedias with about a half a paragraph written about Greece. We couldn’t check out encyclopedias and we had to ride the bus for a half hour to and from school, so we couldn’t stay after to use the encyclopedias either. We had to take notes on 3×5 cards. My writing was illegible. I didn’t type until after high school. Even now both are still pretty awful. 🙂 You bring up a lot of memories, my friend. 🙂

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    1. My typing was mostly Tippex (that white stuff – might have been called something else in the US). My first primary school was in a very run-down borough of East London, but even after we moved out to the leafy suburbs we had no library till secondary school (post 11). We were expected to be in lessons while at school and any research was done in the public library out of it. (Although we weren’t expected to research much back then – we took notes in lessons and memorised what we were told.)

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      1. That sounds about right. My life was almost the same. Inner city until age 7, then leafy suburbs, but with a library. I don’t remember a public library out there, though. Mom didn’t drive, so we were pretty isolated. When my parents divorced when I was 15, we moved 2500 miles to Portland Oregon back to the City again when there were services.

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